Responding to criticism of “Media bias demonstrates need for citizen journalism”

[Editor’s notes, 1/7/13 – Reaction to my February 2006 piece, “Media bias demonstrates need for citizen journalism,” was mixed. My criticism of the Athens News didn’t stop that newspaper’s senior reporter Jim Phillips from approaching me in person one day to compliment me on the piece and discuss the issues it raised. However, a much less positive response came from associate journalism professor Bernhard Debatin, whose students at The Post were a major focus of my article.

Debatin’s response came within a broader context of journalism faculty attitudes toward The InterActivist that ranged from unsupportive to hostile. For several years The InterActivist was not even permitted to be distributed within the building that housed the school. Of the professors who made financial contributions to support the magazine between 2003 and 2008, none was from the J-school. Finally, in 2008, one of Debatin’s colleagues did take interest in the magazine when he teamed up with one of his students on our staff in an unsuccessful attempt to have me removed as director of People Might so that he could replace me as project coordinator for The InterActivist.

According to Lindsay Boyle, who edited The InterActivist from 2010 to 2012, relations with the journalism school have improved dramatically since my departure. However, I will note that in all the years since my departure I am not aware of The InterActivist publishing any criticism of The Post, the main production of students of OU’s journalism school.

Debatin’s response to my article follows and is in turn followed by my reply. Both pieces appeared in the April/May edition of The InterActivist.]

Is this supposed to be citizen journalism?

By Bernhard Debatin
April/May 2006
The InterActivist Magazine (Athens, Ohio)

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Damon Krane’s article “Media Bias Demonstrates Need for Citizen Journalism” in the February 2006 edition of The InterActivist presents a lengthy personal attack against Post reporter Emily Vance, as well as charges against The Post in general. The issue at hand is a Post report about an anti-war action on November 2, 2005, that culminated in a confrontation at the Army recruitment center between the protesters and war supporter Monica Gasztonyi, who blocked the access to the center.

Krane’s entire article rests upon an ill-founded reading of a single phrase in The Post: “Protesters initially tried to move the woman …” He conflates “tried to move” with various words that would signify violence, including “altercation” and the term “assault” as defined in criminal law. The original wording in no way implies that. Indeed, the phrase does not even indicate that violence was applied. “Try to move” can mean anything from asking somebody to make way to forcefully pushing someone.

A reasonable reader would not jump to the conclusion that “tried to move” really meant “pushed” or “shoved” or “struck” or “kicked.” Moreover, a careful journalist – and Vance is just that – would have used one of those other verbs to express violence, if she really wanted to convey the message that physical fbrce was used. Krane also quotes Danny Burridge as saying a f’ew protesters ‘Jostled with” Gasztonyi. Burridge then takes pains to distinguish “jostling” from “pushing.” But more to the point, the phrase – “tried to move” – is certainly further from connoting violence than is ‘Jostling.” Krane does not recognize, however, that Burridge uses stronger language than Vance, nor does he consider that the Athens News’ choice of rvords (“scuffling”) implies more physical activity than “tried to move.” These differences cannot have escaped Krane, yet he chooses to build his whole story upon his unfounded claim that The Post reported an “altercation” and “assault” by the protesters.

Much of the remaining story consists of hearsay and one-sided accusations. Good reporting (which Krane claims to practice) would give the accused at least an opportunity to respond. The “pattern of bias” that Krane claims to “uncover” is no more than the trivial insight that newspaper editorials tend to be opinionated. And while it is good journalistic practice not to use unnamed sources, unverified accusations, or hearsay, Damon Krane does not shy away from doing exactly this in his own article, bordering on libel at times.

Krane’s multiple-page diatribe is by no means a piece of “citizen journalism,” nor is it “investigative journalism” (as The InterAclivlst’s submission guidelines define such lengthy contributions), it is plain unethical mud-slinging. As a journalism professor who specializes in media ethics, I found it somewhat shocking that The InterActivist apparently did not have the good judgment to discourage Krane from publishing his ad persona campaign against Emily Vance. His attack is merely an attempt at character assassination and should be beneath a publication that claims to support social justice and progressive values-goals that I too hold dear.

Dr. Debatin is an Associate Professor at the E.W. Scripps School of Journalism, Ohio University.

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Is this supposed to be a lesson in media ethics?

By Damon Krane
April/May 2006
The InterActivist Magazine (Athens, Ohio)

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A quick review of the article in question reveals that Professor Debatin has either not read my article or is consciously misrepresenting its contents.

I do not “use unnamed sources, unverified accusations, or hearsay,” as professor Debatin claims. I clearly identify each of my sources: ten individuals (all directly quoted and named), one organizational statement, three newspaper articles and my own first-hand observations.

I agree that “good reporting would give the accused at least the chance to respond.” That is why I quote two separate responses to the Athens Anti-War Coalition’s charges against The Post from that paper’s managing editor Kyle Kondik. I also quote one protester whose account supports The Post’s report, as well as Monika Gasztonyi’s description of demonstrators. The result is hardly a one-sided story.

I do not conflate, as Debatin claims, “tried to move” with terms that exclusively denote violence. The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines “altercation” as “a noisy heated angry dispute,” something which does not necessarily imply violence.

“A reasonable reader,” writes Debatin, “would not jump to the conclusion that ‘tried to move’ really meant ‘pushed’ or ‘shoved’ or ‘struck’ or ‘kicked.'” These are Debatin’s words, not mine. I never use any of them as a synonym for “tried to move.” Nor do I conflate “tried to move” with assault. Instead, I report the Athens Anti-War Coalition’s claim that Vance’s report suggests protesters assaulted Gasztonyi. I then juxtapose the coalition’s claim with the definition of assault under Ohio law so readers can make their own judgments.

Particularly astounding is Debatin’s assertion that “Krane’s entire article rests upon an ill-founded reading of a single phrase in The Post….” Here, Debatin falsely attributes to me what is actually one of my sources’ claims: the AAWC’s contention that “tried to move,” within the context of The Post’s article, suggests assault. More importantly, the majority of my article focuses on two separate questions which Debatin entirely neglects to mention: First, did Post reporter Emily Vance state that her controversial report was actually hearsay which she misrepresented as her own observation? Second, was The Post’s slanted news coverage of the November 2nd demonstration and its subsequent refusal to print a retraction motivated by the paper’s opposition to the protest?

A thorough examination of these questions can be found in February’s InterActivist. A short summary, however, is sufficient to illustrate the extent of Debatin’s distortions.

As to whether The Post reported unverified hearsay as a factual first-hand obsevation, multiple witnesses, including myself, claim that Vance told AAWC members at a November 3rd press conference that she had not observed protesters trying to move Gasztonyi, but had heard about the alleged incident “from somebody else” whom Vance did not identify as the report’s source. This would mean that regardless of whether protesters “tried to move” Gasztonyi, Vance did not actually observe what she reported. Yet when pressed for a retraction, Post Editor Kyle Kondik said Vance was sticking by her original report. (Kondik also claimed to be in possession of photos supporting this report but refused to allow coalition members to see them.) In an attempt to verify one side’s account over the other, I contacted Athens Messenger reporter Casey Elliott, the only person present at the press conference who is not associated with the AAWC or The Post. Unfortunately, Elliott said her paper’s policy against commenting on other media prevented her from discussing her recollection of Vance’s comments.

As for the second question, Debatin writes that “the ‘pattern of bias’ that Krane claims to ‘uncover’ is no more than the trivial insight that newspaper editorials tend to be opinionated.” This is an astounding misrepresentation. In reality, I noted that The Post’s editorial position against the demonstration coincided with coverage of the event that only quoted people who, like The Post, opposed the demonstration. This one-sided news coverage dramatically set The Post apart from the other two local newspapers, each of which quoted both demonstration supporters and opponents.

Note that while The Athens News published an column by a staff writer denouncing the demonstration published alongside the paper’s news coverage, the Athens News nonetheless reported on the demonstration fairly within its news piece. Indeed, my article for February’s InterActivist, a magazine with an explicitly progressive editorial perspective, included a greater balance of sources than Vance and Chris Deville’s piece for The Post, a traditional newspaper ostensibly dedicated to objectivity.

Editor Kondik claimed The Post’s failure to obtain even a single quote from any of the approximately 200 people participating in the demonstration (that the newspaper was ostensibly covering) resulted from demonstrators’ refusals to give their full names to reporters. However, multiple demonstrators testified to giving their names, and the Athens News and Athens Messenger managed to quote by name a combined total of ten demonstration supporters. Again, I’ll stress that my article quotes all of these people by name, in stark contrast to Debatin’s false charges of “unnamed sources, unverified accusations and hearsay.”

Thus I fail to see how reporting any of this qualifies as “plain unethical mudslinging,” an “ad persona campaign against Emily Vance… merely an attempt at character assassination,” “a personal attack on Emily Vance,” or “a multi-page diatribe,” “at times bordering on libel,” which “should be beneath a publication that claims to support social justice and progressive values.”

Given Dr. Debatin’s apparent fondness for false accusations, glaring omissions, empty pronouncements and incessant name-calling, I do not think he should be lecturing anyone about media ethics — certainly not the publishers of this magazine.

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4 Responses to Responding to criticism of “Media bias demonstrates need for citizen journalism”

  1. Pingback: Media bias demonstrates need for citizen journalism | Damon Krane

  2. Pingback: The Post and OU J-School take turn for the worst, stay the course for three years or more | Damon Krane

  3. Pingback: 10 Years Later: Anti-War Writings, Old & New | Damon Krane

  4. Pingback: Interview with Former InterActivist Editor Damon Krane | Damon Krane

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